As expected, the Bears will start Jay Cutler on Sunday in Cleveland, and I think it’s the right decision, both short-term and long-term. Though McCown has played well in relief of Cutler, which some have taken to mean that he would be the better bet for the final three games of the year, I think that’s far from a guarantee. I think McCown has played well, for sure; better than anyone could have hoped for. But I do think that there are some underlying factors that might help us figure out how a journeyman who was coaching high school football last year has been so good. For instance, I checked Football Outsiders defensive DVOA rankings (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a system Football Outsiders developed that is explained here) for teams McCown has faced. Below are those teams, along with their DVOA rank for pass defense and total defense. (Rankings found here.)
- Washington: 26th Pass Defense, 20th Overall
- Green Bay: 30th, 28th
- Detroit: 19th, 16th
- Baltimore: 11th, 7th
- St. Louis: 18th, 12th
- Minnesota: 24th, 26th
- Dallas: 28th, 31st
If you’re scoring at home, that’s one pass defense ranked higher than 18th, and none in the top ten. Not coincidentally, McCown’s worst game came against Baltimore, the only above-average defense of the bunch; it also came in adverse weather conditions, of course. Which only underscores my point: in football, there’s always a context. You can’t really look at numbers and assume that because those numbers were good, a quarterback is going to perform at that level any given week. (A subject I touched on Wednesday.) There are many, many factors at play. Including the running game; as Kevin Fishbain noted on Twitter, the Bears averaged 94.9 rushing yards per game while Cutler was under center. With McCown playing, they’ve averaged 137.3. Breaking it down further, they rushed for 4.1 yards per carry with Cutler vs. 5.1 yards per carry with McCown. That’s a development for which you’d be hard pressed to credit McCown, and Trestman himself cited an improving offensive line as a key part in the evolving offense at his Thursday presser. It stands to reason that either quarterback would benefit from that improvement, and an improved, threatening running game can open things up for a passing offense. This move doesn’t hurt the floor of the offense, and it raises the ceiling. Considering the state of the defense, the Bears will need every bit of offense they can find if they hope to make the playoffs.
As to the long-term effects, I think this move is yet another sign that Marc Trestman believes strongly in Cutler’s talent. As the Tribune’s Rich Campbell noted in this piece, the head coach never wavered from his position on playing Cutler upon his recovery, and in fact referred to Jay’s skills and talents as “unique.” That’s not a sign that he believes any quarterback can step in and be as good as Cutler can potentially be. The other side of this decision is that if the Bears do want to retain Cutler going forward, they basically had to play him. Benching Cutler due to injury after promising him all along that he’d retain his starting job might have damaged the relationship beyond repair. (Emphasis on “might”; I’m not exactly close to the situation or a psychologist, I just know that Cutler hasn’t exactly been fond of bait-and-switch tactics in the past.) I’m not suggesting that it was the driving force behind the decision; in fact, I doubt it played into it much at all, just that had they gone with McCown, that’s what they’d be risking. But if Trestman and Emery really are of the opinion that any quarterback could step in and be successful within this system, as The National Football Post reported Wednesday, I doubt the Bears would have had a problem playing McCown. If Trestman thought it was the move that gave the team the best shot at winning this Sunday, and they weren’t afraid of damaging a long-term relationship with Cutler, I think Josh would be starting. Instead, he went with Jay, and since I believe that Trestman is A.) a lot more knowledgeable about their respective abilities than I am, and B.) very much interested in winning the game, I tend to agree with him on this one.
So what should they do this offseason? I’ve seen the “dump Cutler, keep McCown, draft a quarterback to develop” strategy floated out by numerous people. Aside from the obvious sample-size problems involved with basing a long-term roster decision on a handful of games, (into which I delved Wednesday) NFL contracts aren’t MLB or NBA contracts. They’re not fully guaranteed. You’re not married to the player for the full length and amount of the deal. Things are much more flexible, and the risk is much, much lower from a financial standpoint. Say the Bears kept McCown on a reasonable deal and drafted a rookie quarterback in one of the first two rounds. First of all, that’s a high draft pick that won’t be playing on defense next season. The defense is likely to be better after an offseason of re-tooling (and a regression in injury-frequency) but the odds of the unit improving from worst to even average seem long.
As is customary in today’s NFL, the offense is the more important side of the ball, and that’s even more true for the Bears, who hired Marc Trestman specifically to foster an evolution into an offensive-minded team. They have a wonderful collection of offensive talent, with the best duo of receivers in the league (I’m finished using arguably to modify that statement) and a top-five all-around running back. The complementary players are also either skilled or promising. Offensively, they are set up to be good next season, and probably for the few seasons after that. Why jeopardize that window by taking a risk on your quarterback situation? You don’t get an infinite number of seasons with this offensive talent. Matt Forte will pass the 1500 career carry mark this year, and he just turned 28. Brandon Marshall will be 30. Alshon Jeffery will be in line for a big raise at some point. The defense will be a question mark, even if Phil Emery were to throw a bunch of newly-freed cap space at free agents. What if McCown gets hurt or regresses back to a level of performance nearer to his career numbers, and the quarterback prospect either isn’t ready or isn’t good? (Which is quite possible; Luck, Wilson and Foles have been very good, but Ponder, Locker, Gabbert, and Geno Smith have been very bad; it’s still a positional crapshoot.) If those two things happen, the Bears have just wasted a year of a competitive window, even if the cap savings from letting Cutler go resulted in a mid-tier defense. Decent defense and bad quarterback play won’t win a Super Bowl anymore.
Why take that chance? To me it seems that if there was ever a situation in which a team SHOULD be willing to spend money to ensure quality quarterback play, it’s this Bears team for the next few years. Cutler isn’t Brees, Rodgers, Brady, or Peyton Manning. But the Bears aren’t getting any of those players to replace Cutler, and odds are they aren’t going to luck into the next one, either. They have a player who by most accounts is in the tier of quarterbacks just below the top group from a talent standpoint. He will be 31 next season; that gives the Bears at least four prime years left to work with. Trestman obviously believes in him. The window for what has the potential to be a Super Bowl-winning offense will be open for a span of time that would coincide with Cutler’s deal. For a cross-sport analogy, look at the Cubs rebuild. When have they said they’d be willing to spend big on a free agent? When they’re ready to compete, and that free agent can fill a need. The Bears are ready to compete. Jay Cutler certainly fills a need. And as I noted near the top, NFL contracts carry a lot less risk; this isn’t going to be a Robinson Cano albatross in eight years. Given the makeup of the team and their competitive timeline, it seems to me as though extending Cutler would be a low-risk, high-reward move, that would set the Bears up with a competitive offense for the foreseeable future.